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In some Michigan cities, nonprofits have filled gaps in city services. Is that a good thing?

The city of Detroit
Josh Garcia / Unsplash
Nonprofits and philanthropy groups have increased roles in Detroit and Flint's governance as they provide resources to residents that the government has not.


What happens with a cash-strapped city loses its grip on the ability to govern and provide basic services for residents?

New research from Michigan State University shows nonprofits and foundations are stepping in to fill the void in Michigan's cities, like Detroit and Flint.

Sarah Reckhow is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. She researches the unprecedented role that nonprofits and philanthropy groups now play in how cities like Detroit and Flint are governed. 

Even before Detroit and Flint hired emergency managers, local government was shrinking faster than the the cities' declining populations. This meant that they couldn't provide the residential services  their residents needed.  

“The nonprofits came along, in many respects, to take on roles that filled services and needs that residents had,” Reckhow said. “I mean if you think about the Flint water crisis, there was an immediate need to provide drinking water to residents, respond to health needs, and other aspects of ways the crisis was affecting people.”

Both Detroit and Flint schools received private donations to provide clean drinking water to their students. In fall 2018, the water fountains in all 106 schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District were turned off for many months due to elevated copper and lead levels. In Flint, the Musk Foundation, run by Tesla founder Elon Musk, donated money for schools to install new water fountains that could filter out lead—something the district would not have been able to afford. 

Reckhow says that although Detroit and Flint aren’t the only financially-stressed cities, they are extreme examples of how nonprofits became involved after a public-sector crisis. And as local governments start rebuilding themselves, the sustainability of this governing model is controversial.

Take Detroit, for example. Reckhow says the public-private partnerships that Mayor Duggan has established in the wake of the city's bankruptcy have helped the city. But they've also meant that some power has shifted away from elected officials, and to the nonprofits or philanthropists, who are ultimately not accountable to voters. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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